Aged only 17 he risked his life to smuggle Jews out of Mussolini’s Italy, before spying on the Nazis while employed as a driver for a German general. So it is little surprise perhaps that Pino Lella’s life is going to be made into a Hollywood film. What is more remarkable is that his heroic deeds might have been forgotten to history, if not for an e-book published by a US thriller writer that has become one of the word-of-mouth hits of the summer.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which was released initially for Kindle devices before being published as a paperback, has been downloaded 250,000 times, even though it has been ignored by most mainstream reviewers. The novel by Mark Sullivan reached No 6 in the Amazon fiction bestsellers’ chart. The film rights have been bought by Pascal Pictures, a Hollywood production company, which last week announced that Tom Holland, 21, the British star of the latest Spider-Man film, would play the role of Mr Lella as a teenager.
The glowing Amazon reviews do not simply spur sales; they also lift the spirits of Mr Lella himself. Now aged 91, he lives just north of Milan. His son, Michael, occasionally reads him comments left by readers humbled by his bravery. “He’s a little embarrassed” to hear the praise from strangers, Sullivan said recently. “At the same time, he’d like to hug every single one.”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on more than a decade of research including weeks of interviews with Mr Lella, although it was ultimately written as a novel because Sullivan struggled to corroborate certain details because so many of the relevant historical records have been destroyed.
Sullivan, 59, whose work includes the bestselling Private series, which he writes with James Patterson, first heard about Mr Lella’s story at a dinner party in 2006, through an acquaintance who had happened to strike up a conversation with the retired Italian while on holiday.
Like many Italians of his generation, Mr Lella was reluctant to discuss his Second World War experiences, and had never spoken to a historian.
“The first time I called him from the States, he said he didn’t understand why I’d be interested in him,” Sullivan told an interviewer this year. “I told him that from what I knew of his story he was an uncommon hero. His voice changed, and he told me he was more a coward than a hero. That only intrigued me more.
“When I first went to see him, I stayed for three weeks. He was 79, and living in a decaying old villa in the beautiful town of Lesa on Lake Maggiore north of Milan.
“We talked for hours in his drawing room, which was filled with old tapestries and paintings, a grand piano and the mementos of a long, fascinating life. Hours, days and then weeks went by as I listened to him summon up the past.”
The book tells how in 1943 the teenage Lella joined an underground network to help spirit Jewish families away from Nazi persecution and across the Alps to the safety of Switzerland.
Subsequently, he fed information to the Allies — including the locations of tanks, mines and fortifications — while working as a driver for Hans Leyers, a general who commanded a Nazi engineering group. Mr Lella’s parents had pressed him to volunteer for the job to avoid being conscripted by the Germans and sent to the front line.
After the war, Mr Lella worked as a car salesman in California for a time. Even his family never knew the full story of his wartime bravery. Sullivan reckons that 90 per cent of his novel is fact.